International Players Are Taking Over the NBA


Blame AAU basketball, blame the one-and-done generation, blame whatever you want, but what cannot be argued is that there is an international wave taking over the NBA. Increasingly it seems like the best and most influential players in the NBA are from countries and regions outside of the U.S.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the future of the NBA post-LeBron. Now, I'm convinced that the future will be international.

  • The top two in this season's MVP race were international players. So were three of the top four and four of the top six.
  • Three of 72 ROTY Trophies have gone to players who played most of their youth basketball outside of the United States. Two of those three occasions were in the last four years. That was Ben Simmons in 2018 and Luka Doncic in 2019.
  • For the first time in NBA History, three straight MVPs have gone to players that did not play any high school or college basketball in the United States.
  • Five of 66 MVPs have been gone to a player who did not play high school or college basketball in the U.S. Three of those five occasions were in the last three years.

All of this while, approximately only 21.8% of the players in the NBA are classified as International. Yet international names are not only seen across all NBA awards, but they are dominating the field.

One explanation for the rise of international dominance is that the fundamental skill level of American-born basketball players is at a continued decline. Many NBA legends have been on record critiquing the state of AAU basketball, claiming AAU organizations have become more about flash and financial gains than actual skill development.

That's one theory, but it is incomplete. While there are legitimate AAU critiques, there is no arguing that today's rookies are much better dribblers, shooters, and athletes than the generations of the 90s and 80s.

Increased international presence is another theory that could apply.

As more foreign players enter the league, the more likely they are to win individual awards. But that is also incomplete in that the 21.8 percent international rate is not that much higher than the 18% of 2010, and less than the 22.1% of 2004.

I believe the explanation is down to the increased quality of international basketball.

My theory is that international basketball is the best it has ever been because the NBA is excelling in popularizing the sport globally.

When international players make a career in the NBA, it's usually the best of the best. The best of the best used to mean you'd get a player like Hakeem Olajuwon or Dirk Nowitzki every fifteen years or so. But now, with basketball reaching more corners of the globe, the NBA is seemingly getting a Dirk/Olajuwon level franchise player every other season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid are all international players on Hall-of-Fame trajectories. They are all under 30 and were all drafted within the last eight years.

The United States will always have the best international team because of the sheer number of kids who play basketball, so I can't imagine another country producing the same saturation of quality players. But as far as the U.S. versus the rest, the world is catching up and may already be better.

A starting 5 of current international players in the NBA would probably defeat the best the U.S. has to offer. Ben Simmons at point guard, Luka Doncic at shooting guard, Giannis Antetokounmpo at Small Forward, Nikola Jokic at Power Forward, and Joel Embiid at Center. That leaves out the defensive player of the year in Rudy Gobert. Along with talents like Jamal Murray, Nikola Vucevic, Kristaps Porzingis, Dennis Schroeder, Shai Gilgeous Alexander, Andrew Wiggins, Deandre Ayton, and Pascal Siakam.

The NBA clamored so much for international exposure, and these are the results.

In 2019, for the first time in history, the four major NBA Individual awards were won by international players.

Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece/Nigeria won the MVP, Luka Doncic of Slovenia won the Rookie of the Year, Rudy Gobert of France won Defensive Player of the Year, Pascal Siakam of Cameroon won Most Improved Player. And for safe measure, Domantas Sabonis of Lithuania also finished third in 6th man of the year.

2019 was the first time that happened, and I expect it to happen again more and more often as the international wave of the NBA takes over.

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